The sandalwood-camphor mix infuses the air in his artistically-done Powai home. Hariharan, the velvet-voiced musician who has effortlessly navigated the twists and turns of varied genres, is trying his best to push a defiant lock of hair back into his otherwise well-behaved mane. It refuses to be tamed, much like the man himself, who has defied every slot critics have tried to put him in.
“I don’t bother too much with nomenclatures of genres and styles. Personally, I feel irrespective of what genre I dabble in, the end result should be good and strike a chord with audiences,” says the singer who has won the National Award twice and pioneered the idea of fusion outside the classical format.
The playback singer — who’s sung in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Bhojpuri and Telugu films — can hold his own comfortably in a Carnatic kutcheri, a ghazal concert or even a fusion music gig.
And right now, the 59-year-old is pleased as punch with the response to Hazir 2 with tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain — a sequel to the duo’s collaborative album and concert series Hazir, which was released seven years ago. “The response in both Delhi and Chennai has been good but it’s always special to perform in front of the home crowd,” he says, ahead of the upcoming Mumbai concert on Tuesday (February 25).
Soulful ghazals and soft poetic compositions led to Hazir numbers getting lakhs of hits on YouTube. Hazir 2 continues the emphasis on melody and meaning. “Zakir bhai and I were clear that this should not merely be a clone of our earlier work together. That’s done. We’ve both since grown as artistes, as have audience tastes, so there will be intelligent infusion of those influences too,” asserts Hariharan.
Insisting on biscuits to go along with the coffee, the Thiruvananthapuram-born, Tamilian Iyer Mumbaikar breaks into a hum, his fingers keeping beat. After all, the science and law graduate inherited the legacy of his Carnatic vocalist mother Shrimati Alamelu and late father Anantha Subramani Iyer. “My mother was my first guru, from who I picked up Carnatic music. But growing up in Mumbai exposed me to both Hindustani classical music and semi-classical genres like Marathi natya sangeet from early on.”
Remembering his days as a teen, Hariharan says he was inspired by Mehdi Hassan and Jagjit Singh’s ghazals. “I realised that I felt passionate about this genre and trained in the Hindustani style from Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan. You know, for me, it was a twin struggle. I was not only trying to perfect the style but also the diction, often with nearly 13-14 hours of rigorous practice every day,” he laughs. The fruit of that regimental perseverance is his impeccable Urdu diction, which has wowed ghazal aficionados even in the Urdu heartland of Lucknow.
An all-India Sur Singaar competition win in 1977 opened the doors to a professional career in music with the late music director Jaidev offering him a song, ‘Ajeeb Saaneha’ for Gaman (1978). It won him an Uttar Pradesh state award as well as a National Award nomination for best singer. After that, there was no looking back.
Soon, concert TV performances beckoned and he sang the title tracks of TV serials and cut several successful ghazal albums. “The first Abshaar-e-Ghazal (with Asha Bhosle) struck gold in sales while Gulfam two years later bagged best album of the year,” he remembers.
Hariharan was making waves in the popular music segment too. When Madras Mozart AR Rehman, who has referred to Hariharan as “the most flexible voice”, made him sing the patriotic ‘Thamizha Thamizha’ in Mani Ratnam’s Roja, it marked not just his own debut in film composing but also a turn in Hariharan’s career.
Hariharan’s ‘Uyire Uyire’ (‘Tu Hi Re’ in Hindi) for the Ratnam-Rehman duo in the film Bombay went on to capture the national imagination. “It was a tsunami like I’ve never seen,” laughs Hariharan. “It was playing everywhere, right from dhabas to pubs.”
While his ‘Chappa Chappa’ (Maachis) is still sung with gusto at get-togethers, his ‘Mere Dushman Mere Bhai’ from Border two years later brought him the National Award for playback singing.
If ‘Uyire…’ was a tsunami, what does one label Colonial Cousins, his collaboration with composer-singer Leslie Lewis in 1996, which was the first Indian act to be featured on MTV Unplugged? Hariharan says modestly that this career milestone had a lot to do with timing. “From 1995 to 2002 was the golden era for non-film alternative music. Our songs would be on TV almost 20 times a day on each of the five-six music channels which were around,” he says. “Today, we have lost that. We are back to only film music and rhythm. While this isn’t bad by itself, a diverse country like ours should surely have place for other genres and styles.”
Blaming the corporatisation of music, film and TV business, he says, “Once something clicks, people want to keep repeating it till it gets sickening.” This greed is evil, he says categorically, “And music moguls denying artistes their rightful royalty is part of the same malaise.”
Praising singers like Sonu Nigam who are leading the fight, he has a special word for doyenne Lata Mangeshkar. “She stood up to Raj Kapoor in her time over the same royalty and even the showman had to accept that she was principally right.”
Having sung for his son Akshay, who has established himself as a composer-arranger, the proud father says, “Today’s youngsters have such creative minds and so many ideas that it’s refreshing.” He singles out young singers like Arijit Singh. “They should try to work on creating their own individual styles instead of imitating others,” he advises, explaining the point with a line from his song, ‘Tere Bina Zindagi’ from Dil Vil, a song originally sung by Kishore Kumar in Aandhi.
“This was a Kishore Kumar number. I cannot try to become Kishore da. Whether I sing this or Lataji’s ‘Bindiya Chamkegi’, I give it my own touch.”In fact, his next album, where he will reprise some of Mehdi Hassan’s best known ghazals, is awaited exactly for this. “Ranjish hi sahi...,” the man sings, as sandalwood meets camphor again. And the music goes on.